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Tenants' Rights In The Face Of A Storm

Associated Press
Brothers Danny Delarocca, left and Gino Delarocca, right, both of Boca Raton, load plywood onto their car at the Home Depot in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016.

Forty-two percent of all South Floridians rent their homes. And as it turns out, there’s not a whole lot of obligation for landlords to help tenants prepare for a coming storm.

The problem starts with most people's leases. Often there is no mention of storm preparation: who is responsible for certain things or what needs to be done in order to prepare a home for a hurricane. For a reference, take a look at this form lease from The Florida Bar.

A lease is the main governing document of any tenant-landlord relationship. Outside that, there isn’t much law that says anything about storm preparation.

But while there’s really no legal obligation for a landlord to help a tenant prepare, Leslie Powell says there’s an economic incentive for landlords to do so. Powell is executive director of Legal Services of North Florida, specializing in housing law and disaster response and recovery. She’s been through Hurricanes Katrina, Ivan and Dennis in the Florida Panhandle area.

“The homeowner might have an obligation to their insurance company to make sure the home has whatever level of protection is appropriate for the storm that’s coming, but the homeowner is really going to be protecting their own interests in the home,” said Powell.

Landlords protecting their investment incidentally protect a tenant, said Charles Elsesser, a lawyer with the Community Justice Project in South Florida.

But he questions whether storm protection shouldn’t be part of a landlord’s obligation to provide a safe dwelling.

“The landlord’s obligation is primarily to provide a safe structure: plumbing, safe walls and roof… The question is: Does all that go out the window in a big storm?” asked Elsesser. He argues protection of a home in advance of an imminent storm should be considered part of maintenance of those essential structural parts, but acknowledges “should” is different from any legal obligation.

Powell says usually  homeowners' insurance doesn’t cover a tenant’s belongings and suggests people take their own steps to protect their stuff. If you can afford it, that means getting renters' insurance for future storms. (It is probably too late for Matthew, depending on what company you are buying it through.)

For now, she recommends having a conversation with your landlord about options for protection, like putting up shutters.

Whether Irma will do enough damage to open up a can of tenant-renter worms, no one knows.

This post was originally published on October 6, 2016.